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Muay Thai Chaiya (Muay Thai Fighter)
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by Jay Seaver

"A muay thai 'Boogie Nights'."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: I'm not generally a fan of boxing films; even so-called classics of the genre leave me cold. Because, let's face it - boxing is about violence and fighting as an end unto itself, and while it's one thing to engage in it for physical fitness or self defense, it's hardly surprising when boxers wind up entangled in crime and thuggery. At that point, it's a question of how compelling the filmmakers make the details and how much style they bring to the story. While "Chaiya" doesn't stand out too much on the first front, it is exceptional on the second.

We start with three friends in rural Thailand, training under the tutelage of a master at his camp. Samor (Sonthaya Chitmanee), our narrator, suffers from an early leg injury, and misses his chance to perform in the ring himself, and so winds up supporting the other two. Pao (Thawatchai Phanpakdee), is the son of coach Thew (Samart Payakarun) and brother of a champion, and is considered to have the most potential, although he is somewhat timid, being in their shadow. Piak (Akara Amarttayakul), is more aggressive, both as a fighter and in life, as he woos pretty nurse Sriprai (Phreeta Kongpetch) before Pao can make his move. After a time, the four make their way to Bangkok so that Pao and Piak can try to break in as professional boxers. Though Piak has more early success, a false accusation soon has him reduced to underground cage matches - and soon doing "favors" for the man who runs them.

The movie takes place over the course of years during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and as a result feels a bit like a mauy thai version of Boogie Nights. The cinematography takes on a retro feel as well, with lots of grain and the occasional split screen during montage sequences to have Pao's and Piak's paths run literally in parallel. Director Kongkiat Khomsiri and his editors do a very nice job with those sequences, which are both filled with muay thai action and pretty good storytelling. Having this sort of narrative sweep does mean that he has to fit a lot of information into the film's two hours, and that's often accomplished by literally stopping the film and giving the audience names and vital statistics on new figures entering the friends' world.

Though sometimes the grainy look of the film in the city is a little overwhelming, this is a good-looking film. The opening scenes in the small coastal village are breathtaking, the period detail is garishly authentic without making a joke of it. The fights are well shot, and even the character design, for lack of a better word, makes sense: Somar puts on weight over the course of the film as he and Piak sink further into the gang life and his bum leg prevents him from continuing to box; Piak's tattoos and wild hair give him a wild look.

The cast is pretty good, too - Akara Amarttayakul emerges as the clear star of the piece, playing a wild man whose excesses will inevitably cost him dearly, even though it's hard not to be drawn to the raw passion he brings to everything. Sonthaya Chitmanee manages to make his presence felt despite sharing most of his scenes with Amarttayakul, occasionally reminding us that no person is just a sidekick from their own perspective. Thawatchai Phanpakdee fades into the background a bit at times - as the "good" one, he has to gain the audience's affection over time by being consistently good, which he does. Phreeta Kongpetch and Saengthong Gate-Uthong (I would never have connected stripper and would-be-singer Warn with the sweet Jin from Citizen Dog) are good as the women in Piak's life.

All that is well-done, but Khomsiri's movie is pretty standard stuff, surprising mainly in that it doesn't go the route of having Piak and Pao fight. That means it has to bring in an outside character in for the final test in the ring, and Don Ferguson's "Diamond" Sullivan is just too disconnected from the rest of the characters for it to be that powerful beyond being a good match. Meanwhile, outside the ring, we get a rampage that is entertaining, but I don't know that "killing a lot of people in the name of honor" is really the final message this film's themes are leading up to.

So, in terms of story, this isn't really anything new. If you like this kind of story, though, it's very well-executed - enough so that even those of us for whom it's not a particular favorite can enjoy it.

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originally posted: 07/22/08 01:03:43
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2008 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2008 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2008 series, click here.

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  DVD: 12-Apr-2011



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